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Environment and Communications Legislation Committee - 27/07/2015 - Landholders’ Right to Refuse (Gas and Coal) Bill 2013

McCARRON, Dr Geralyn, Private capacity


CHAIR: I welcome Dr McCarron. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. You have provided us with a submission. Would you like to add anything to that submission before we go to questions?

Dr McCarron : Yes. We have talked obviously about the inequity in access and about the fact that there is supposed to be 4,000 happy farmers in Queensland who have signed access and alternative arrangement agreements. It is definitely my contention that there are over 4,000 documents whose validity is in dispute, obviously because landholders had the option of signing them or they had the option of signing them but there was no option to say 'no'.

I would wonder at the level of coercion of the Queensland government. In 2010 they produced a document which was distributed to landholders, which was a 10-page document which included among the tips these three: firstly, you cannot obstruct a resource company just because you do not agree with the activities being carried out on your land; secondly, regardless of how you feel about the activities taking place on your land, you are encouraged to develop a courteous and cooperative working relationship with the resource company; and thirdly, worst of all—a tip from the government—ending up in court could be costly, stressful and time-consuming.

Since the petroleum exploration licences relinquished ownership of the gas to the licensees, the question in my mind is: had the Queensland government any business involving itself in and exerting influence on behalf what was the private business interests of the companies involved?

This is particularly relevant when the government involvement was at the expense of Australian citizens and was forcing access to mainly foreign business interests onto freehold land. Landholders and communities had no right to refuse gas, and it is well past time that they did.

Despite the best attempts of the Queensland government to avoid any science based approach to the ongoing reports of ill health in Queensland's gas fields, the international science is now coming in, and it is my assertion that no longer can claimed ignorance of human health harms be a defence for legislators. This bill introduced by Senator Waters draws a line in the sand with regard to federal responsibility.

A short summary of the health evidence is as follows. There is a new document, published on 15 July this year, which is an analysis of 95,000 hospital admissions. This is from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia, and it shows that hospitalisations for heart conditions and neurological illnesses were higher among people who live near unconventional oil and gas drilling. Hospitalisations for skin conditions, cancer and neurological problems were also associated with the proximity of dwellings to active wells. Since that was not in my original submission, I would like to table that document.

A report on the analysis of nearly 125,000 births in Colorado, released in January 2014, found that, in areas with the highest number of gas wells, there was a 30 per cent increase in the number of babies born with congenital heart defects compared to areas where there were no wells within a 10-mile radius. Birth defects were most likely undercounted, because non-live births, terminated pregnancies and later-life diagnoses—that is, after the age of three years—were not included.

A study from Cornell University found that babies born within 2½ kilometres of a gas well had lower birth weight and more health problems than babies who were born within 2½ kilometres of a future well. This obviously caused problems, as low birth weight and preterm babies in the States incur an average of over $15,000 in additional hospital costs in the first year of life, and each low-birth-weight infant is 50 per cent more likely to require special education services as well as having lower lifetime wages.

There is a review of 150 studies which concluded that the chemicals released during natural gas extraction may harm human reproduction and development, with strong evidence of decreased semen quality in men, higher miscarriage in women and increased risk of birth defects in children.

The extreme air pollution caused by the resources industries has been accurately measured and documented in the peer reviewed literature. For example, in remote rural Utah, far from major urban or industrial regions but the site of major oil and gas development, air pollution over two consecutive winters far exceeded that in the most heavily polluted inner cities. It was 10 to 100 times worse than the average US city. The volatile organic compound emissions were the equivalent of the annual emissions of 100 million cars.

It is internationally recognised that outdoor air pollution causes cancer. In 2013 the World Health Organization defined outdoor air pollution as a class 1 carcinogen. Diesel fumes, benzene and particulate matter all cause cancer. The health danger of particulate matter is well understood. The particles, if small enough, can be absorbed from the lungs directly into the bloodstream, causing damage to multiple organs. This includes lung damage, strokes, heart attacks, kidney damage, diabetes and high blood pressure. With particulate matter, as with benzene, there is no safe level of exposure or a threshold below which no adverse health effects occur.

Air pollutants react to form other harmful compounds. Ozone is formed when the oxides of nitrogen and volatile organic compounds combine in the presence of sunlight. Ozone can permanently damage children's lungs. A study by the University of Southern California of fourth-grade schoolchildren found that each increase of 20 parts per billion of ozone was associated with a 63 per cent school absence rate increase for illness.

Data from the National Pollutant Inventory in Australia demonstrates the rapid escalation of emissions of all these harmful air pollutants from the gas and coal industries in Australia. With regard to the gas industry's activities in the Darling Downs, the extent of this pollution reported to the National Pollutant Inventory has been collated and published by Dr Wayne Sommerville. I had thought he had put a submission to this inquiry, but I am told that he has not; so I can table his submission, if you wish.

CHAIR: Sure.

Dr McCarron : A study from Harvard University published in March—

CHAIR: Dr McCarron, in the interests of having the opportunity to ask more questions, would you like to just table your opening statement. How much longer is it?

Dr McCarron : It is not much longer.

Senator URQUHART: If you could go to some key points, it might be useful.

Dr McCarron : Internationally, the evidence is that this level of pollution causes extremely bad effects. Harvard University found that women who are subject to particulate air pollution in their pregnancy have twice the risk of having an autistic child. Children are not just little adults. In children the risks of exposure to even low-level toxins is not well understood. Occupational health standards cannot be applied to children. So what can be considered acceptable for an 80 kilogram worker exposed to a single toxin over an eight-hour day cannot be extrapolated to an unborn infant or a child exposed 24 hours a day to a mixture of toxins, many of which are unidentified. Some chemicals can affect the endocrine system at extremely low levels, and children and unborn babies are most vulnerable.

The report showed that global flaring produces multiple chemicals. There are over 250 identified toxins released from flaring, which include many chemicals that cause cancer. They mobilise the radioactive materials. They include toluene. They mobilise the heavy metals—mercury, arsenic and chromium. Fair warning has been given in the international literature to the effect of contaminated material entering the food chain. There has been documentation of animal deaths, stillborn calves and congenital defects in animals. What is really important is that the most recent literature highlights the fact that the currently accepted methods of monitoring emissions does not take into account the actual, sometimes very high levels of periodic exposure.

Studies in the states by Dr David Brown found that households are subjected to variable particulate and chemical air exposure that may reach potentially dangerous levels. Concerns relate to the whole lifetime of gas development rather than primarily focusing on hydraulic fracturing as the predominant polluter. Hydraulic fracturing itself occurs over a matter of weeks, while compressor stations and gas processing plants also located near people's homes pollute 24 hours a day for as long as the gas runs through the pipeline.

The studies from the states mirror what I found out on the Darling Downs. In 2013, I surveyed the health of 113 gas field residents, and 58 per cent of the people surveyed were certain that their health was affected by coal seam gas. Of concern to me was the impact on the children, particularly the neurological effects, as well the nosebleeds and the headaches. Also, of the 113 people that I surveyed two years ago, I have lost track of some of them but 45 of them have been forced from their homes due to the impact on their health and wellbeing. Six of those families were bought out with confidentiality agreements, so they are not allowed to speak.

In December 2014, New York State banned high volume hydraulic fracturing on the grounds of public health. The public health doctors who authored the report on which this decision was based were looking at, again, the entire process of natural gas well development and production. This document, which I am told that you have got, contains 90 pages of references and abstracts from studies which inform the report. Acting Health Commissioner Dr Howard Zucker said that the study had identified significant public health risks. He went on to say:

I asked myself, 'would I let my family live in a community with fracking?' The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else's family to live in such a community either.

In my opinion, it is unconscionable that in Australia landholders in the community should be denied the right to protect themselves and their families from such serious health harms. There are other documented harms linked to the unconventional gas: local harms such as risks to agriculture, tourism, food security, water security, property values and community harmony as well as the big picture of climate change.

It is unacceptable that any citizen of Australia should be forced, by law, to say yes to the intrusion of such an industry onto their property and into the community, and it is time legislators at the federal level put into place real protections for the Australian people. I think this bill is just the beginning. Federal laws that protect health are needed. I also believe it is time legislators who ignore the evidence and put the community at unnecessary risk be held accountable and liable for the harms caused by their decisions.

Senator Ruston, in the first session this morning, when the Environmental Defenders Office spoke about NICNAS, you questioned the validity of what they were saying and whether they were scaremongering. I have a document here, which I can send to you, on QGC's well-site stimulation. They list the chemicals they use, including six biocides, clay controllers, corrosion inhibitors, cross-linkers and gels—many chemicals around which there are very definite health concerns. These chemicals are used in astronomical levels, as you have already heard—tens of tonnes per well—and none of these have been assessed by NICNAS.

CHAIR: Or any other regulatory organisation?

Dr McCarron : No. They were meant to be assessed by NICNAS. There were 23 different chemicals recognised as having been used in Australia. Two of them have been assessed by NICNAS, but not for hydraulic fracturing, so basically there is not any information on it. That is part of the problem with this: the science just has not kept up with—

CHAIR: If you would like to table that document we will have NICNAS take a look at it, and the other regulators, to confirm the validity of what you have just said. Is that the end of your opening statement?

Dr McCarron : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Dr McCarron, how long have you been a GP? And where have you practised as a GP?

Dr McCarron : I have been a doctor since 1980. I have been a GP since I came to Australia in 1989.

Senator URQUHART: You have only practised in—

Dr McCarron : Australia—in urban Australia, not in rural Australia.

Senator URQUHART: One of my questions was about the health effects your study found. You talked about neurological issues—nosebleeds and headaches. What were the other health effects your study identified? Or was that it in the main?

Dr McCarron : They are skin conditions; sore eyes; bleeding noses; severe headaches; severe headaches in children, to such an extent that they were banging their heads on walls in the middle of the night because their headache was so severe; neurological problems, such as little children with very little language who are trying to describe to their mum what is wrong with their hands describing it as ants in their hands and little children with no language just screaming for water and then dipping their fingers in the water.

Senator URQUHART: Is that the skin conditions and things like that which you were talking about?

Dr McCarron : No; that is the funny feelings in their fingers—children who are constantly rubbing their fingers.

Senator URQUHART: What feedback have you received following your report?

Dr McCarron : From whom?

Senator URQUHART: From anywhere. I might go to the next question, and you can answer the two of them together, if you like. A 2013 study by Queensland Health found that there was no link between CSG and illnesses suffered by residents in Tara, but in your report you describe the Queensland Health report as inadequate and flawed. I am interested in what brought you to that conclusion about the report being inadequate and flawed.

Dr McCarron : First of all, that was not what they said. They did not say there was no link. Basically, they did not have enough evidence to make a link, and the reason they did not have enough evidence was that they really did not have any evidence of sufficient quality at all. In terms of the environmental evidence they had collected, there was not enough to do even the most simple statistical analysis of the chemical contaminants that they had organised. They had got QGC, which is the company that was being investigated, to set up and organise for testing. So they were testing themselves. The extent of that testing was that in July, I believe, 2012 QGC over a period of a week or so took environmental tests—air, soil and water—on nine properties. That is the basis of the environmental testing for that Queensland report. There was a bit more work which involved DERM doing some longer term monitoring where they left a few little things out for a week. The most interesting information actually came from the residents, who had demanded the use of summa canisters—they let it off and it takes 30 seconds of air into a canister, which is then analysed. That is the extent of the information that fed into the environmental one. From the point of view of the clinical study, Dr Penny Hutchinson was the Darling Downs public health doctor who was organising the study. In her debriefing of the local people at the beginning of 2013 she confirmed that she had received no extra funds and no extra personnel to do this testing program. Not a single doctor from Queensland Health went anywhere near the gas fields or the people who lived on them. People were to phone a 13 health number and have a phone survey, and Dr Hutchinson would then phone them back and have a longer talk about it.

Senator URQUHART: Was this monitoring that you are talking about with the canisters and things in the same area, Tara, where you did your—

Dr McCarron : Yes. The air testing was in the Tara residential estate.

Senator URQUHART: And that is where you picked up your research information?

Dr McCarron : Partly. It was some people from Tara and some people from—

Senator URQUHART: Over a wider range.

Dr McCarron : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Your report recommended:

A fully funded comprehensive medical assessment of residents currently living in proximity to unconventional gas development should be carried out as a matter of urgency.

That was one of the recommendations.

Dr McCarron : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Are you aware of any government response to that recommendation?

Dr McCarron : The interesting thing is that the Queensland government's own report, if you take it that they could not come to a conclusion and you just treat it as a pilot study, which in effect it was, is fair. Their main recommendation—a very discrete recommendation—in that report was that there should be a testing program which should determine the overall coal seam gas emissions and the exposure of the residents to those emissions. That was the main point and recommendation of that report, which was undertaken and released in March 2013. My problem with the whole process is that that still has not been done. My really deep concern about the whole process is why it has not been done. I had communication with the deputy minister for health in June 2013—Dr Davies—and he assured me that this was underway and that there was a whole process of intergovernmental work on going forward with that report. Towards the end of that year I had discussions with Dr Jeanette Young, who was head of Queensland Health, and she confirmed that there was a whole-of-government process.

Senator URQUHART: That was the end of 2013?

Dr McCarron : Yes, 2013. Nothing happened. I really think that a very bright light needs to be shone on the DEHP, the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, because in 2014 I received a letter from Dr Bristow—I can table both of these as well—who is head of Darling Downs Hospital and Health Service—

Senator URQUHART: I think we have a copy of that in the stuff that you gave us.

Dr McCarron : Yes. So what he said was that, in relation to Dr Neville's recommendation proposing a strategic ambient air monitoring program to monitor overall coal seam gas emissions and exposure of the local communities to these emissions, this recommendation was apparently initially considered by the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, who determined that the air quality data from Tara indicated compliance and thus did not support expanding the program. So they, in late 2014, were depending on data from 2012 to say that the companies were in compliance, and, therefore, they would not follow through the very defined recommendations of their own government's report. So I find that definitely a problem.

Senator URQUHART: Just take a step back. Your report was in 2013.

Dr McCarron : At approximately the same time.

Senator URQUHART: About the same time as that. And since then you have followed up with, I presume, both meetings and letters?

Dr McCarron : Lots of letters, circular letters—

Senator URQUHART: And you have had no feedback in a response from them as to what is happening.

Dr McCarron : Yes. So that letter and DEHP deciding that the health requirements of the people in the gas fields did not need to be complied with was for the last government. Now we are on to this different government—and I got a letter back from this particular government. I had asked about the flaring that had been going on. It was advertised in the local papers that there was going to be flaring because it was going to be so extensive. So I sent a letter to various people, including Dr Lynham's ministry and Premier Palaszczuk. I asked what air testing program had been put in place during this period of prolonged flaring, which was for over about a month or so, and I got the answer back that 'atmospheric emissions of combustion products from flares at well sites and field compressor stations involved typically small quantities of low-risk contaminants that could not be expected to cause measurable environmental impacts. Accordingly, the very low potential for harm did not support any proposal for EHP to conduct atmospheric monitoring during this maintenance or testing process.' So, again, DEHP are overriding the health concerns of the people out there. There is no science. The reason that you cannot find data is because the collection of data has been deliberately blocked.

Senator WATERS: I just want to make sure I am understanding this. Am I right that you have said that during the course of 2013 various senior people assured you that some studies were underway, and then, magically, in 2014 there was a change of position, but it was the same government—that was before the election—

Dr McCarron : Yes.

Senator WATERS: Do you know why the studies were discontinued? Did anyone explain that?

Dr McCarron : No. Only that letter.

Senator WATERS: Only a letter from the subsequent administration saying: 'We decided that, no, there are not 55 flares around somebody's house'?

Dr McCarron : No. The first letter was from the head of hospital and health on the Darling Downs—

Senator URQUHART: There were two separate letters.

Senator WATERS: But that does not address the question, though; it just ignores that recommendation.

Senator URQUHART: Can I just seek clarification. The letter that we are talking about is dated 27 October 2014.

Dr McCarron : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: And that is the first one?

Dr McCarron : The first one, yes.

Senator URQUHART: But the other document you were talking about was a later one?

Dr McCarron : Yes. It was 16 July 2015.

Senator WATERS: I am following that sequence of events, but what I do not understand is: that letter of October 2014 does not address what you called the 'discrete recommendation' for further studies and, in fact, it says that everything is fine. Why the change of position? Did anyone ever say why they so radically changed their position?

Dr McCarron : No. And they keep going back to this and saying that they find that there was no problem—which is not true.

Senator WATERS: Which you say is wrong.

Dr McCarron : It goes round in circles. They did not find that there was no problem; they found that they needed more studies to define, not whether the companies are compliant or not. That is not the issue. The issues are: what are the total coal seam gas emissions and what are the exposures of the residents to those emissions?

Senator WATERS: And the health impacts. Does the letter from Minister Lynham shed any light on the current proposal as to whether to get that information? I am only halfway through it. It is—

Dr McCarron : No.

Senator URQUHART: Okay. Maybe while you finish reading it, Larissa, I might be able to finish my questions. Dr McCarron, your report recommended that the Commonwealth government should legislate a unified standard to protect public health from the effects of unconventional gas development. You talked about that in your opening statement. Given that the states have responsibility for mining regulation, why do you think that the Commonwealth government needs to overlap in this area?

Dr McCarron : In Queensland, the Queensland government completely forgot about the precautionary principle. They did no baseline health studies and, as I implied, failed to gather evidence consecutively, over years. This is something that is planned to be rolled out all over Australia and Queensland is being held up as the happy state with the 4,000 happy farmers and no problem from health effects, but with no evidence to support either scenario, and everybody who is impacted has confidentiality agreements. So there must be some federal oversight on it.

Senator URQUHART: To what extent, if any, do you think that this bill would address those concerns?

Dr McCarron : It would be a very small start.

Senator URQUHART: Have you reviewed the 2014 report on CSG by the New South Wales Chief Scientist and Engineer?

Dr McCarron : I read it, but it was a while ago.

Senator URQUHART: That is okay. I do not expect you to be across all this stuff. The report observed:

All industries have risks and, like any other, it is inevitable that the CSG industry will have some unintended consequences, including as the result of accidents, human error, and natural disasters.

But the report concluded that the most appropriate response to this risk is:

Industry, Government and the community need to work together to plan adequately to mitigate such risks, and be prepared to respond to problems if they occur.

What would be your response to that particular finding?

Dr McCarron : I would go back to the New York report. Fracking was banned in New York on the basis of public health. Public health has not been examined at all under any auspices, including in the New South Wales investigation. It is inconceivable that you can be talking about these effects, which are so profound and which international studies have shown unequivocally are a problem. The scale of the problem is not known—just that there is definitely a problem. That is not taken into account at all. How are you going to mitigate it? You first have to say whether you are going to do it at all, before you decide whether this is something that you can contain.

You cannot regulate accidents. That is the point—they are accidents. Somebody today told you about that blow-out on the pipe. I can show you what that blow-out on the pipe looked like if you want me to—it is about 20 seconds. But it is really important. There is 90 kilometres of pipeline and they can contain it at one end or the other, but they cannot contain 90 kilometres of a pipe almost 1½ metres wide of high-pressure gas that can be extruded straight into the atmosphere. Everybody who is around there is going to be affected by it. You cannot regulate accidents.

Senator WATERS: Thank you so much for your evidence, Dr McCarron, and for summarising all of the international health studies, because, as you have rightly pointed out, we are yet to make serious inroads into doing domestic health studies, for reasons that escape me. I am trying to both listen to you and read the letters. The letters do not appear to say much, other than it is somebody else's problem. Perhaps that is an unfair summary. That is really all I can detect so far. We will try to establish from the Queensland government—I do not think they have touched on it in their submission—why they discontinued the studies that were on foot. Perhaps we could, as a committee, write and seek an explanation of what the impetus—

CHAIR: Maybe you should direct your questions to Dr McCarron. Perhaps that is something you can discuss with the committee at some stage.

Senator WATERS: I am making that suggestion to the committee and, if the committee does not agree, I will do it myself. We will try to get an answer to that is because it seems like a very important question based on the evidence that you have brought before us. Regarding the Pennsylvania study that was published a week ago is explosive. All your evidence so far is explosive—no terrible pun intended. Why do we not hear more about this? Have you had conversations within the medical community about this? Are there any other bodies that have read your evidence and be similarly horrified by it?

Dr McCarron : I do not understand why there has been such silence on the part of physicians in Australia, and not just in Queensland but throughout Australia. I really do not know. Part of the problem may be doctors' unwillingness to show themselves to be wrong when they happen to be wrong, to stand up and say something and to be shot down, so they just do not stick their head up the above the department at all. I really do not know why it has not eventuated. It could be partly due to around the time that the Queensland government investigation started. It was the time that 14,000 public servants were sacked.

Senator WATERS: Of course.

Dr McCarron : That might have something to do with it. I do not know.

Senator WATERS: Timing wise—I am trying to remember the year. It could well be. Have you mentioned this to the AMA? Do they have copies of your reports?

Dr McCarron : I have been in contact with the AMA from time to time and they have put out various statements. The belief is that current air quality standards have failed to keep up with scientific evidence and key sources of hazardous air pollutions are not subject to routine or independent monitoring, which is an obvious understatement. They are of the opinion that the precautionary principle should stand and if it cannot be shown to be safe then it should not proceed.

Senator URQUHART: Have the AMA commented at all on the health issues that were raised in your study?

Dr McCarron : To my knowledge they have not commented, particularly on the people out at the Tara gas fields. I am not aware that they have.

Senator URQUHART: A causation or a correlation between what you found in your research and the sort of stuff they are talking about comment terms of the monitoring not being—

Dr McCarron : I do not know what they have said about it. I do not think they have said very much.

Senator WATERS: We can certainly take that up with them. I am still try to get to the bottom of what studies are currently under way, if any—

Dr McCarron : In Queensland?

Senator WATERS: In Queensland—by anybody, and ideally by our health department.

Dr McCarron : By the health department?

Senator WATERS: Or anyone.

Dr McCarron : As far as I am aware, it is a trickle-down effect, in terms of whose responsibility it is. The Queensland government devolved responsibility of health to the regions, so the Darling Downs Public Health Unit is responsible for Darling Downs. Any investigations regarding health would have to come out of the Darling Downs Public Health Unit's budget. In terms of feedback from the individual people within that unit, they seem to think that it then trickles down to the local GP in the area, in terms of investigating what might or might not be going on. So there is none that I know of. I know there have been desktop studies, but, as far as any real science is concerned, there is none that I am aware of.

Senator WATERS: And of course there is no requirement for health impact studies at the federal level. There is no requirement even at the state level for a health impact study when an enormous approval like this is issued.

Dr McCarron : No.

Senator WATERS: We will digest the material that you have given us. It is incredibly alarming and I hope that we can give it might some more airing and get to the bottom of what is going on here.

Dr McCarron : Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, Dr McCarron, for making yourself available, particularly at such short notice, and for your submission. I thank everybody here for taking the time to be here today.

Committee adjourned at 16:05